Connecting National Policies to the SDGs in Tackling Internal Displacement

Children play among temporary shelters erected by the International Organization for Migration in a camp for internally displaced people in Pulka, Nigeria. (STEFAN HEUNIS/AFP/Getty Images)

While cross-border migration continues to be in the news and a topic in political debates, the silent crisis of internal displacement and the resulting challenge of addressing the needs of internally displaced persons (IDPs) continue. It is estimated that a total of 40 million people are internally displaced worldwide, a staggering figure that is double the amount of cross-border refugees. Many governments are grappling with how to provide for these millions and their efforts can be significantly boosted at both the international and national level through the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Internal displacement is primarily caused by armed conflict and natural disasters. The ten worst affected countries include China, the Philippines, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States, and Iraq, among others. These states have the primary responsibility to provide protection for IDPs on their territory, as well as to develop durable solutions to address both their short- and long-term needs.

There is a connection between the 2030 Agenda and the plight of IDPs that can be both better understood and implemented. Adopted by member states in 2015, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development promises to “leave no one behind,” providing an opportunity for governments to tackle internal displacement issues as part of efforts to achieve the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs). The 2030 Agenda also creates the space for development and humanitarian actors to better collaborate, notably on internal displacement, which is traditionally considered a humanitarian issue.

The 2030 Agenda is the first international framework to acknowledge that internal displacement issues need to be tackled in sustainable development policies and programs. The agenda specifically mentions IDPs as a vulnerable group that must be empowered through efforts to implement the SDGs. Although there are no specific targets or indicators in the 2030 Agenda related to internal displacement, many of the SDGs are directly relevant to the plight of IDPs. Given the number of people displaced today, progress towards the SDGs will be hindered if they are not reached, impacting a country’s peace and security.

Whether at the national or international levels, better implementation of policies on development, UN guiding principles, or the 2030 Agenda requires better understanding of the specific situation that IDPs face. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement define IDPs as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border.” Since IDPs do not cross borders, they are not refugees and therefore do not benefit from the legal protections that come with the status, and fall outside of the mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The reality, however, is that IDPs often become refugees as they are further displaced, and refugees returning to their country of origin can in turn become IDPs.

Displaced population also often have important immediate needs, such as food, shelter, access to healthcare, and protection, but their situation—especially in protracted crises—requires solutions to longer-term issues including adequate housing, access to education, job opportunities, food security, and earning a livelihood.

At the level of national governments, there has been increased recognition that internal displacement issues need to be tackled in development policies and programs. The implementation of adequate policies could help reduce the occurrence and impact of displacement, and ensure that IDPs become assets and contributors to local economies and economic growth. Countries with internal displacement should develop local and national policies as part of their development planning and governance that ensure the needs of IDPs and the challenges they face are addressed, along with those of the communities that host them.

An interesting example of a government response to IDP needs—incorporating both national policies and SDG implementation—is that of Nigeria, which has one of the highest displaced populations, approximately 1.7 million people. Nigeria is among the few countries that has shown a commitment to including displaced populations in its national policies on development. One of the ways the government has done this is through the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) 2017–2020, which aims to improve Nigeria’s economic growth by investing in infrastructure, improving the business environment, and promoting national and social inclusion by providing equal job opportunities and improving human capital.

The government has prioritized two IDP-related issues in this policy. The first is social inclusion through the enhancement of the social safety net. The second is addressing region-specific exclusion challenges, especially in the North East and the Niger Delta areas. Nigeria also included IDPs in its Voluntary National Review (VNR) for the SDGs, in particular with respect to SDG 4 on quality education, SDG 16 on peaceful and inclusive societies, and SDG 17 on global partnerships. The federal and state government, with support from the UN and other organizations, have also initiated efforts to rehabilitate pockets of local government areas (LGAs)—the so‐called “Bama Initiative”—to provide support for the safe and voluntary return of IDPs when conditions are deemed conducive. This approach is one that other member states can follow in order to ensure the inclusion of IDPs in local and national development policies and programs and in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda.

Nigeria is also a pilot country for the UN’s New Way of Working (NWOW), which frames the work of humanitarian and development actors along with national and local efforts in support of  “collective outcomes.” Recently the UN established a humanitarian-development nexus task force in Abuja to better respond to the short- and long-term needs of affected populations, which includes IDPs.

Addressing the needs of IDPs in line with the SDGs involves better understanding and implementing the so-called “humanitarian-development nexus.” Humanitarian and development actors can find ways to maximize their respective added value and strengthen their collaboration to reduce the vulnerabilities of IDPs and support durable solutions, in partnership with national governments. The SDGs and their targets are aligned with policy discourse around the humanitarian-development nexus, opening up a space for humanitarian and development actors to better respond to the needs of populations caught up in complex and protracted crises.

To this end, the humanitarian and development arms of the UN—the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP)—are increasingly pursuing strategic coordination and cooperation, and the UN secretary-general established a Joint Steering Committee advance humanitarian and development collaboration in 2018. Other efforts have included UN and World Bank collaboration, particularly the establishment of the Joint Data Center on Forced Displacement by UNHCR and the World Bank.

The adoption of the 2030 Agenda as a universal framework provides a roadmap for including  IDPs within their national development policies and an opportunity for humanitarian and development actors to work together. A proactive and good faith engagement by governments to tackle internal displacement, while leveraging the international community’s growing expertise on these issues, will help ensure such an approach has the concrete positive effect needed by affected populations on the ground.

Masooma Rahmaty is a Program Administrator at the International Peace Institute (IPI). She tweets @MasoomaR_. Alice Debarre is a Senior Policy Analyst in the Humanitarian Affairs program of IPI. She tweets @Alicedbrr.